Sunday, September 14, 2014

Grown Back

Sometimes I cannot accept the changes that in my short life time have happened around me. I miss the dairy farms. There used to be two of them not far from where I live. One of them, which belonged to Brad and Carla Phillips of West Paris, used to be one of the best in all of Maine. Their high fields on a southward facing hillside were the envy of every farmer who ever set his heart on milking cows. Three crops of hay in a summer are anything but unlikely for the ambitious. Though the owners have become old, the buildings have been so well kept up the farm could go back into full production in a good summer. I think it has something to do with the work.

September 5, 2014

A cold front was passing through this afternoon, bringing in showers and a foreboding winter wind, but the rain stopped and Sunshine and I walked on the north, the downhill, side of Kittridge Brook Road, the dirt road my house is on. There used to be big fields in here. Jack Robert's father, a dairy farmer, once worked this land. But now the fields are all grown up to brush.

Sunshine and I got into the woods on a slash cut where there had been logging recently, and we missed the trail but there was a stone wall to follow and the stone wall crossed the trail again. There was a wire fence along the stone wall in the middle of the woods. To have these old fields all grown back is a hard thing to think about. I have some idea what it means to clear land. And now my own land is growing back because there is no crowd of animals to graze them any more.

I thought surely when I became retired my fondness for farm animals would encourage me to carry on. I have enough land to keep a small herd of beefs, maybe Angus, which would be worth something come time to sell. I wanted animals that would be worth something. I looked at Alpacas. Like dairy goats you don't have to take them to the butcher except in rare cases. If fact, I can't off hand think of a rare case that would prompt me to take one to the butcher. They are wonderful for their fiber. It is a fiber you can get into as deeply as you have ambition to, a fascinating study of a lifetime. My eyes are slowly declining, reading is becoming more difficult. I theorized once to a weaver-yarn maker that spinning might be easier on the eyes than reading, but she didn't have anything to say about my theory. I have heard that the expense of a sound animal is in the thousands of dollars; and I have heard that they are difficult to keep. They seem to stay solitary in herds and unlike Llamas they do not appreciate sharing a pasture. Llamas run beautifully among goats, and it is a sight to see. But that is a simple problem of fencing. I have heard that Alpacas are delicate. A sound animal in the prime dying suddenly is not a happy experience. I can tell you that from hard experience. Pigs are clever and stubborn. Get a herd of friendly ones, you will surely run across them in the garden. They are little bulldozers, clearing land. If you can't make money with pigs, so I have heard, get out of farming. Grass is another study. Birds. Farming for the inquisitive is the work of a lifetime. Cows can be dangerous. I think there comes a time when you have got enough of it.

Farming doesn't seem to jive with the times. Who knows where their food comes from? Even if you do because you have done farming, though as a sort of hobby or pastime, what you have just spent a summer raising, may not be what was sold back, once the colored slime is added, on your trips to restaurant or grocery store. Man, am I mad or does label reading seem discouraging, especially if you'd like to live for awhile before dying miserably with the c word. But it is not so much the product—everybody has got to eat—but the work that goes into the product. The work is outside, so you've got to like it; times happen when it is dirty, grim and dark. Pulling a dead calf out of a pile of prolapsed uterus is just farming. Cleaning pens, trimming the feet of an uppity buck, fencing, my personal pet peeve, are arduous work. Hardly any of the kids want to do it anymore, and when you find one who does, it is like running into a breath of fresh air. They are good with the financial vagaries. They know that if they are smart, stay sober and make do, they'll have a dandy herd of Angus calves to sell, and maybe a nice profit to bring home. I don't think most folks like to get out of bed at 4:30 in the morning any more, or spend Sunday afternoon out with the calves, trying to get them halter broke, rather than digging into NFL football and a six-pack. And, this is my personal opinion, hearts have hardened. Who wants to sit up all night working on a calf with a belly ache, and then come dawn watch her die spewing out green slime? I think I'll drop that idea. Sometimes, I confess, my heart stops beating for those two legged things, though a favorite doe who has barely survived a disastrous kidding can still bring me to tears.

So in the pasture behind the hay barn, which I slowly cleared myself over the years, a good big space, the brush have taken over. Used to be the bucks would clear brush but now we have only Johnny, a Nubian. It doesn't take long for brush to take over, three or four years. I should hire a bulldozer to level it off and clear the big boulders to make something of it; then fix the fencing and buy a little crowd of sheep to raise and sell. Sheep are too dumb to get personal about, not like pigs. You name your pigs and when, after a short summer, you send them to the butcher it can get personal.

I'll probably knock down more firewood this winter. I am getting older and my legs are not so good but I want to burn firewood. Pretty soon that's all there will be for me to do, cut firewood and take care of a vegetable garden. It would be nice to get a couple of years firewood ahead, maybe ten, fourteen cord cut, split and stacked. Then I'd burn like I used to, which is all the time. That would keep my open spaces—I almost said fields—clear. But it is much easier on my wife, who is getting old too, to run the furnace.

In Jack Roberts' backyard the pines and spruce have taken over, which must be the first cover toward a normal Maine woods before the leafy trees come in. Possibly the fact that the land slopes north reduces the number of leafy trees in this first growth because, of course, northward sloping land tends to get less sun. But once the leafy trees take hold in most situations where the ground is not too uneven, they crowd out the piny trees; the leafy trees, even the poplar, tend to be taller and their upper branches are more needful of light. I have observed that numerous times in old growth that has not been recently logged, at least here in the foothills, deciduous trees tend to dominate.

Now in this young growth there are few trees worth cutting down. Where we walked today Jack Roberts had laid out some large trees to work into firewood. But the trees had been cut from a place along the edge of the new growth. The logs looked like sick and broken down elms. Cows like to hang on the edge of the field on hot summer days for the shade under the big trees that have been left. Along the edge of the cleared land the farmers used to leave substantial trees. I myself have left a sturdy beech, for instance, which happened to be nice to look at, inside the fenced in area for that very reason—it would be useful as a shelter to the animals. But the animals interfere with the roots and sooner than you can imagine the branches were naked and the tree having ceased to flourish became dangerous enough so that you naturally cut it down. Hopefully the tree is not very close to house or barn. Twice in my life I have come uncomfortably close to felling a big tree on a house.

My opinion is that sun windows in winter are more valuable than shade is in summer. But creating sun windows for winter often leads to an adventure. I feel as we cross out of the new growth and brush into the fields that someone has kept open that same feeling of adventure. When the farmers cleared the land, it must have been something like a battle in war. These fields are like small battlefields. Woodsmen tell me about cutting on blustery Autumn days. You couldn't know which way the tree would fall. There were injuries, unforeseen accidents, even deaths. As I walk I feel the souls of these men so close, so close. They are very dear to me. How has it happened that so much has changed? I can think of hardly a person man or boy strong enough to cut down a big tree with an axe and dig up and pull the stump. What has happened to the dairy farms? I do not think this change or these fields grown up to brush could presage anything good. As I walk through I struggle in damp combat with contrary images of an American future I can't understand.

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